‘An English woman’s life in Hungary before the regime change’ could be the subtitle of ‘Now you you see it, now you don’t’, Marion Merrick’s first book. The second book, ‘House of Cards’ deals with how her and her Hungarian friends’ lives were affected by the changes after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
This is the first time a Westerner has published a first hand account of what it was like to live and work in Communist Hungary, and then in the aftermath of the regime change.
To begin at the beginning
Marion and her husband went to work in Hungary when he was invited to teach at the Liszt Music Academy in Budapest. At the same time, she started teaching English in a freshly formed language school.
Marion’s description of what it was like dealing with authorities, finding accommodation and the upkeep of their car reminds me of what I saw during my visits to my relatives in Hungary. When my family fled to the West, we were considered traitors and ‘dissidents’ who, if caught on Hungarian territory, risked imprisonment and deportation to Russia for re-education.
The description of the officialdom and the uncomfortable feeling they perceived at borders remind of my similar childhood experiences. Of course, it was different for people with Western passports. The officials knew that Western embassies were offering some protection to their citizens abroad. My family had refugee passports for several years and only dared to travel to Hungary after we received Austrian citizenship. But even then, we knew that we were still considered Hungarian citizens too and were watched with suspicion.
Forint good; dollars even better
In the early sixties, the Hungarian State realised that they were depriving themselves of a huge source of income. They declared a general amnesty, and allowed family visits by Hungarians living in the West. From then onwards, my mother took us to visit our few relatives there and to show us the places she had told us about.
Life under communism
Conditions under which our relatives lived are well described by Marion. There was a shortage of flats, people couldn’t afford cars (which cost several years’ wages and took three years to arrive after payment) and corruption was endemic.
Marion describes how many formerly well-off families were facing expropriation of their properties by the Communist system. Hungary’s postwar political order began to take shape even before Germany’s surrender.
In October 1944, Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, agreed with Stalin that, after the war, the Soviet Union would enjoy a 75% to 80% influence in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, while the British would have a 20% to 25% share.
In the aftermath of World War II, a victorious Soviet Union succeeded in forcing its political, social, and economic system on Eastern Europe, including Hungary.
Under Stalin’s rule (1941 to 1953) the Hungarian dictator Rákosi followed Russia’s example. The state started expropriating land and property and redistributing to small farmers and people who openly declared themselves Communist party members. Until the end of WWII, my mother’s family had also owned a large flat in Central Budapest. Under the new Communist regime of 1947, they were forced to share their flat with three families they had never met before.
The three-bedroom, one reception room flat was divided. The families were given one bedroom each and my family lived in what was left. When I was born in 1948, my great grandmother, my great aunt and my parents lived in the living room of the flat. All walls had sofa beds and, in the middle, there was a large table.
Flats and furniture
The furniture was made up of valuable but quite worn antique pieces. Around 14 adults shared the one kitchen and the only bathroom. But there was central heating and warm water supplied from the town centrally. Budapest has hot water springs.
Marion describes a flat they moved into which must have been similar to our former family flat. These grand flats have very high ceilings. They often were converted with upstairs galleries which make additional bedrooms. The Merricks moved several times and the condition of the flats and the area where they were located varied greatly. But rents and bills were very low.
It’s who you know that counts
The couple were befriended by academics and encountered a lot of assistance by their group of friends. The process of Marion’s work permit was helped along by an acquaintance. When she said that she longed for lamb which was not available in Budapest shops, a friend brought her a present of it. People had contacts and it was important to have the right contacts.
The Merricks would have been of special interest to people who opposed the Communist regime. It was extremely rare that Hungarians had direct contact with people across the Iron Curtain. Many academics were anglophiles and it was a type of resistance to keep company with Westerners. Not everybody was brave enough to show that they were open to Western influence. One of my cousins was married to an artist who was quite popular in the 70s. He was an ardent Communist Party member, and forbade my cousin to invite us to their home when we visited Budapest. Weirdly enough, they lived in our former family home which was considered a luxury. It was bestowed on them as a bonus due to his party loyalty.
Marion describes how people worked together to overcome everyday problems. A kind of camaraderie one hears of the Britain of WWII. Hungarian academics were mostly from former upper and middle class backgrounds, who suffered most suppression and loss of standing in the Communist times.
Two catalogues of change
The two books give an insightful description of the gradual changes Hungary went through between the 70s when the Merricks moved there to the late 80s of political change.
The second book also poses the question whether all of the long-awaited freedoms of free elections and democratic civil rights the regime change brought about brought any benefits to ordinary people. The population was unused to developing and declaring opinions in public for nearly 40 years. They were having to pretend they agreed with the official government lines.
Marion voices what many Hungarians at the turn of the 20th century asked themselves. Once the initial elation of getting rid of Russian rule and becoming part of the much-admired West had worn down, reality began to hit. Had one thrown the baby out with the bath water? Was capitalism which people admired from behind the Iron Curtain all they had hoped for?
You can read an interview of Marion in Xpatloop which is running a serialisation of her books.
Marion also has a website www.budapestretro.weebly.com which offers a vivid insight into life before 1989.
Now you see it, now you don’t Published by Magus Kiado ISBN: 9789638278555